Sum of Us

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Ch. 24: Rhys

My ringtone tugs me out of my deep slumber. My head falls back onto the pillow as soon as I have my phone.

“Yeah?” I mumble, my eyes drifting shut.

“What kind of flowers does Poppy like?” Leo asks without a greeting.

“Why do you care?”

“Mom kicked me out. I have to something nice for her to get back in. --”

“What did you do?!” I jolt to an upright position.

“I called her hot. She is. Well done.”

“WHAT. DID. YOU. DO?!” I throw back the covers.

“Chill. flowers will fix it. Help me out.”

His nonchalance has me seeing red.

“ANSWER THE QUESTION!”

“I was caught off guard, okay? I said what I was thinking. Are you going to help me make it better or what?”

“I’ll do more than kick your ass if you’ve ruined this for me.” I snarl through clenched teeth.

I toss my phone aside and sprint down the stairs. The baby-gate at the end of them is jumped like a hurdle. Taylor and I almost collide short after my feet hit the ground.

“Living room.” He has the answer before I ask the question.

Poppy’s seated between my sisters on the couch. Whatever she’s showing them on her phone is making them laugh.

“He kept them on until it was time for her nap.” Poppy commentates.

“Do you remember how hard it was to dress him up when he was little?” Becca consults with Lindsey.

“Almost impossible. I had to hold him down while you did his makeup and hair.”

“Great practice. It’s how I found my calling.” Beck muses with a smile.

Pop giggles at their banter. “Please say you have pictures.”

“Uh, ch’yeah. We--”

“You promised to destroy those!” I march over to them.

“We lied.” Becca grins. “Poppy was showing us how great of a daddy you are.” She pulls me in for a hug. “I’ve never been prouder of you, baby brother.” She kisses both of my cheeks.

Taylor excluded, Beck is the sibling I’m closest to. Bubbly, optimistic, and encouraging – she’s a fellow dreamer and romantic.

“Thanks, sis.” I hug her.

“Mom’s not going to let you wear sweatpants this year.” Becca examines my outfit. “She wants family pictures.”

“I haven’t gotten ready yet. I need to talk to Poppy.”

“If this is about making you sleep in, I regret nothing.” Poppy stands from her seat.

“No, I – wait, what time is it?”

“Almost two.” Lindsey checks the time on her phone.

“What?”

“Feel rested?” Pop inquires with a smirk of satisfaction.

“Yes, but – can we talk in private?”

Her expression falls. “Sure.”

“I’m not mad at you.” I kiss her cheek. “I’m not mad at her,” I tell my sisters.

Their death glares remain intact.

“You better not be.” Becca’s hazel eyes sear my soul.

“I’m not.”

“I guess we’ll see.” Lindsey’s do the same.

Poppy’s hand in mine, I evacuate the hostile environment with my life intact. Mom’s office/crafting studio is our destination.

“If you’re not mad, what’s wrong?” She asks as soon as I have shut the door.

“Leo called me. He wouldn’t tell me exactly what he did. I need to know you’re okay.”

“Oh, that. I’m doing well. Mom and Becca handled it.”Poppy's smile returns.

“What did he say to you?”

“You’ll hit him if I tell you.”

“I plan to hit him either way. You might as well tell me.” I cross my arms.

“We said there would be no fighting.”

“In front of Harper or over a board game. Both promises will be kept.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I won’t.”

“How about you tell Harper was conceived in his car instead? It would cut him to his core. That vintage Mustang is his pride and joy.”

“That could work.” I mull it over.

“And you won’t get hurt. Even if he doesn’t hit back, punching him could damage your hands. You need those in tip-top shape to do what you love.” She unfolds my arms and takes my hands in hers.

“Why do you have to be so logical?” I pretend to pout.

“I have no idea, but I think it works in our favor.”

“We do balance each other out.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

I give her a hug and kiss the top of her head. “How has everyone else been to you?” My arms remain around her waist, but we separate enough to look at each other.

“Mom’s herself. Becca’s a ray of sunshine. Lindsey apologized for her initial reaction. Both of your sisters bought gifts for Harper and me. Beck forget hers at home; Rob’s supposed to bring them later. ” She can’t keep a smile off of her beautiful face.

“So, you’re more than okay? You’re happy?” I have to be sure.

“Very. Harper is too. She, Courtney, and Robby have become inseparable. They’re napping in a guest bedroom. Allowing them to share a bed was the only way to get them to go to sleep.”

“While they’ve got you all buttered up, I’m going to go out on a limb. Will you go out with me?”

“On a date?”

“Yes.”

“People will see us together.”

“So what? I’m not ashamed of you.”

“I’m not ready for that sort of attention.”

“We can go to my place. I’ll order takeout from someplace nice. We’ll eat at the dining room table. There will be candles and wine. There might even be a tablecloth. It’ll be hella classy.” I propose.

She laughs. “The word ‘hella’ is the epitome of sophistication.”

“It’ll be a first date fit for adults. What do you say? We can do it tomorrow.”

“Where would Harper be doing during it?”

“Here with my mom. She requested alone time with her. They’ll probably be in matching outfits the entire time, but Harp will be safe and sound. All of us will be having fun.”

“Did you think this up on the spot?”

“No, but I did it all by myself.”

“Consider me impressed.”

“If you say ‘yes’, you’ll be in for a romantic night of wooing.”

“I do like to be wooed.”

“Say ‘yes’.”

“Maybe.” She wards off a grin.

“I’ll wear you down eventually.”

“I’m counting on it.” She steals a quick kiss.

“Becca’s right about the sweatpants thing. Your mom has been dropping hints about group photos all day long.”

“I can’t believe you let me sleep all day long.”

“You work all night and wake up at the crack of dawn. It’s not healthy. You’re using this break to catch up on your sleep.”

“Do I have a say in this?”

“No.” She softens the blow by kissing me on the cheek.

She walks me to the staircase. “Will you check on the kids?”

“I already planned to. Go back to having fun.” I press a kiss to her forehead. “But stay away from those pictures. Some things can’t be unseen.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“You’re entering at your own risk.”

“I’m willing to sign a waiver.”

“I’ll text one to you.”

“I’ll keep an eye out.” She leaves with a wink.

Harper’s sandwiched between Courtney and Robby in bed. All of them are still asleep and using each other as pillows. I click the door closed with a smile on my face.

I follow the dress code by putting on a flannel shirt the colors of autumn leaves and a pair of dark jeans. I finish up the last of what is typically my morning routine in the bathroom.

Squeals and laughter are heard when I enter the hallway. Following it, I’m lead to the bedroom where the kids were sleeping. I open the door to find the three of them jumping on the bed.

“You’re having fun without me? Why wasn’t I invited?”

“Uncle Rhys!” Courtney and Robby cheer between bounces.

“DADDY!” With a running start and a mighty jump, my life flashes before my eyes as Harper sails through the air.

My heart continues to pound once I’ve caught her.

“Stop jumping,” I tell the other two before they follow her lead.

They take my order as a suggestion and keep bouncing.

Not my kids, not my priority.

“Lovebug, you scared Daddy. Never do that again. You could have hurt yourself.” I hold her closer.

“Daddy.” Harper hums as she returns my hug.

“I mean it, Harper, something terrible could have happened to you. It would have made all of us very sad.” I pry her off of me enough to look her in the eye.

“I no wants you sad.”

“Please don’t jump off the bed.”

“I no ump, I pwomise.” She vows.

“Good girl.” I give Harper a kiss.

Harp tells me about her day as I change her diaper. We practice our roaring as I return her hair to the style it was in before nap time. Her tiny shoes are returned to her stockings-covered feet. She helps me dispose of her diaper in the en-suite bathroom. I wash her hands instead of leaving her to her own devices; I learned that lesson five minutes before a show.

“Court and Rob, down. It’s almost time to eat.”

This gets them to stop. They climb off the bed without a single rebuttal.

“Court, do you need your pull-up changed?”

“Big girls go on the potty.”

“Okay, big girl, do you need to go to the potty?”

“Yes.”

“What about you, bud?”

“I for-ots.”

“Did you wet the bed?” I inwardly groan.

“Twainy pants.”

I have no idea what that means, but the lack of a wet spot on his khaki pants bodes well for me.

Turns out that that “twainy pants” was his attempt at ‘training pants,’ which are the things kids wear when their almost potty trained, but not quite ready for regular underwear. Court’s a real champ at using the bathroom by herself. All I had to do was clip the potty-seat onto the toilet for her. I make a mental note to ask Lindsey how she managed that.

As I take care of the other two, Harper entertains herself by twirling in the mirror.

It really doesn’t take much to keep her content. She spent over an hour crawling around an empty cardboard box the other day, happy as could be.

“Alright, gang, time to go see your mommies.” I prompt Courtney and Robby to follow me to the stairs as I carry Harper.

“I alk by me-self.” She squirms in my arms once we reach the steps.

“I’m not putting you down.” I unhinge the baby gate at the top of the staircase.

“I alk.” She insists.

“You jumped off one cliff today. I’m not giving you the chance to dive off another.”

“Dat no nice.” Harper pouts.

“I’m not nice? You’re not nice. You almost gave your old man a heart attack.”

“I nice.”

“Not to me. You’re hurting my feelings here, Harp, and I haven’t seen you all day.”

“I sowy, Daddy.” She wraps her arms around my neck.

“Did you miss me as much as I missed you?”

“Yes.” She gives me a beautifully bright smile.

Robby and Courtney walk down the steps in front of me at the glacial pace required not to fall. I use the opportunity to ask Harp about how she likes the other members of my family.

Short answer: she loves them.

Applause breaks out when we enter the room. Courtney bows the way she was taught to do in dance class. Harper and Robby follow the crowd’s cues and clap.

“What?” I ask.

“We’ve got the frontrunner for Dad of the Year in our midst.” Lindsey holds up the baby monitor.

“You listened as I dealt with a three-ring circus instead of helping?”

“We wanted to witness you in action.” Becca replies as she pulls Robby into her lap.

“I expect this from them, but not you two.” I look between Taylor and Poppy.

“They thought I was hyping you up. Letting you handle it on your own was the only way to prove you’re a natural. It worked.” She smiles at me apologetically.

“What she said.” Tay doesn’t tear his eyes away from the football game playing on the television.

“What did I miss?”

I turn at the sound of Chris’s voice.

“Nunckle Cwis!” Harper chirps.

Her enthusiasm makes him smile. “Yes, I’m Uncle Chris. May I have a hug? I hear you give great hugs.” Chris transfers the gift bags in his hand to his fiancée.

Harper holds out her arms and stretches in his direction. I transfer her to him.

“Hi! I Hawper.” She tells him after they’ve practically squeezed the life out of each other.

He chuckles. “Yes, you are. Your daddy has told me all about you.”

My relationship with Christopher is less brother/brother and more father/son. Our dad came and went as he pleased, typically unannounced, and did whatever it took to be as disruptive and self-centered as possible. Chris is the exact opposite: reliable, calm, and mature. He always has been, even as kids.

I called Chris and told him about Harper instead of waiting for him to hear it through the grapevine. His work schedule is more hectic than mine. We weren’t able to touch base until after I put Harp to bed for the first time. I braced myself for a lecture similar to the one he’s given Leo three times over. Instead of giving it, he told me to make the choices I wish I made the first time. I have. It’s been working really well for me so far.

We don’t get to communicate in real-time often because of our jobs’ time consumption, but I send him updates, videos, and pictures of my little family. He patiently answers all of my anxious first-time dad medical questions. If Harper so much as sneezes, I call him. The fact that he hasn’t blocked my number yet is a testament to the type of person he is.

“Dat Daddy.” Harper points to me.

“He’s not Daddy?” Chris turns her in Taylor’s direction.

“No Daddy. Dat's Nuncle Aylor.”

“Aw, she stopped calling him Knuckle Trailer? I wanted to hear it in person.” He frowns.

“Oh, no! Are you sad? I help.”

Chris smiles at her deep concern. “I was just joking. I’m happy. Are you?”

“Dis soft.” Harper rubs his sweater instead of answering his question.

“I like my sweaters soft. Jessica got for me. She’s—”

“Hi, Es-ka!” Harper waves at her, making his introduction unnecessary.

“Hello, Miss Harper. I’ve heard so many good things about you and your mommy.”

“Dat's Mama.” Harp swings her arm in the direction that Poppy was seated.

She is now walking towards us.

“I’d like a hug from you too.” Chris motions her over.

“Wish granted.” She gives him a hug and a smile.

“We’re glad to have you back.” He releases her from their one-armed embrace.

“I’m happy to be here. A lot has changed, but it feels the same somehow.”

“That’s the gist of growing up.”

“I think you’re right about that. You’re getting married. That’s awesome.” Poppy replies before turning to Jess. “It’s nice to meet you, Jessica.” Poppy offers her hand.

“The pleasure’s all mine. I’ve been hearing about you for years.” Jess replies as they shake hands.

I tell Jess with my eyes to stop talking.

“Gifts! We bought gifts.” She changes subjects. She holds up the gift bags Chris handed to her. “A belated baby shower one for you and a first birthday present for her.”

“Thank you. I know you’re both so busy. You didn’t have to go out of your way to get us anything.” Poppy graciously accepts her present.

“We wanted to. Having a baby is no easy feat, and not all of them make it to see their first birthday. They’re accomplishments worth celebrating.” Jessica reassures her.

Jess is an OB/GYN. Chris is a pediatric surgeon. Cheering when those milestones are met is a way of life for them.

“Seriously, thank you. Both you.”

“I hope you like it.” Jess continues to radiate warmth. “And this one is for you, Lovebug.”

Chris places Harper on the ground so that she can open her gift by herself.

“Tank you.” Harper takes hold of the bag’s rope handle. She plays with it instead of opening the bag for the real gift.

“The bag isn’t the present, Lovebug. Let’s open it up and look inside.” Poppy lowers herself onto her knees to get on Harp’s level.

“It puple.”

“Yes. It’s yours too, but–--”

“I wike puple.”

“I think you will like what is inside the purple bag even more. Will you open your hand so that I can show you the surprise?”

Harper unclenches her fist. She gives Pop her full attention as she shifts around the tissue paper.

“Oh my goodness, Harp. Guess what?” Poppy cries with animation.

“What?” She’s literally bouncing with excitement.

“You get to be a doctor like them! Here’s a lab coat. Your medical bag has all the stuff you need to help people with their injuries.”

“I help?!”

“Yes. Look. There are even band-aids.” She shows her the ones that were stowed in the play medical set.

“Ooh! Peppa?”

“There aren’t any Peppa Pig ones, but they are all different colors. We can put your Peppa ones in here with them.”

“Be fwiends.”

“Yes, the band-aids will become friends.” Poppy plays along without skipping a beat.

“We do ow?” Harper sweetly requests.

“Absolutely. You have plenty of helping to do.” Poppy helps her into her lab coat.

“You lied,” Jess says as we hug.

“About what?”

“You said I’d really like her.”

“You don’t?” I abruptly pull away from her.

“I love her. You should have known I would.”

“I wanted it to be a fun surprise, like Harper.” I smile.

“I love her too.”

“I’m a very lucky guy.”

“I’ll say.”

“You’re a dad.” Chris makes his way over to us.

“You’re an uncle.” I mimic his cadence.

He cracks a smile and we hug.

“I always knew you’d be a good one.” He gives me a pat on the back before releasing me.

Before I can ask him to elaborate, he and Jess are off to greet the rest of the family.

“Ook, Daddy!” Harp shows me her new get up.

“Look at you! Did Uncle Chris and Jessica get that for you?”

“Uh-huh! In puple.”

“Ah, yes, I forgot to mention the purple bag. It’s a nice one. Have you decided which part you like more?”

“Ummmm….”

“It’s a tough call. Take your time, kiddo.” I ruffle her hair.

“You want her to choose the bag.” Poppy waits until Harper has wandered back to her posse of preschoolers to remark.

“It’s purple. PURPLE.”

“Say no more. I’m sold.”

“What did you get in your yellow bag?” I nod to it with a smile.

“I don’t know. I helped Dr. Harper open her practice instead of checking it out.”

“She’s off healing people with the power of purple. Time to have a look.”

Her natural smile widens to one of excitement when she sees what’s in the bag.

“A plant.” She shows it to me.

“Go ahead.”

“And what? I’ve already opened it.”

“Give me its stats. I know they’re buzzing around your head and I know you’re dying to let them out.”

She blushes. “I don’t want to bore you.”

“I’ll be the opposite of bored. I find your knowledge of plant facts sexy.”

“Inappropriate.” She swats my arm.

“Still true.”

“Now it feels wrong to recite them in front of all these people.”

“Even hotter.” I joke.

“No.” She’s fighting a smile.

“Since you don’t want to do it in public, you’ll have to school me during our date tomorrow.”

“I don’t recall accepting your offer.” She retorts with a bit of sass.

“But I’ve already hired the string quartet and commissioned an ice sculpture of a heart.”

“Non-refundable deposits?” She seamlessly continues my joke.

“And cancellations fee.”

“Wow. You’re locked in.”

“They’ve got me.”

“I guess I’ll go. I’d hate for money to go to waste.”

“That’s a great reason to go out with someone.”

“I think so too. Attraction and enjoyment of their company are optional.”

“I love you,” I speak my mind instead of continuing our streak of playful banter.

A soft, loving smile radiates from her face. “You’re okay, I guess.”

I breathe a laugh and steal a quick kiss.

She leaves to put her plant in our room for safekeeping. I join Taylor on the couch.

“What are your plans tomorrow?” I wait until the football game he’s invested in cuts to commercials.

“Nothing concrete. I might hit up some bars with Jamal and a few other friends from high school. You?” He pets Gizmo, who is curled up in his lap.

“A date at our house with Poppy.”

“I’ll go out. I’ll give you crazy kids your privacy.” He teases.

I playfully push him away from me.

“Careful. This little guy has been through some trauma. Robby tried to ride him and Courtney yanked his tail when he attempted to escape.”

“What did Harper do?”

“She was singing a song about puppies being hungry while filling the dog bowls with food. I was recording it. Gizmo’s yelp of pain caught our attention. I rescued him. She let them have it – ‘dat no nice!’ ‘pups our fwiends!’ ‘he sad!’.” He does his best Harper impression. “And then she came over to me to make sure he was okay.”

“He didn’t snap at her, did he?”

“I kept her away from his face until I knew he wouldn’t. I told her a song would make him heal faster. She sang to him.”

“Hungey pup’?”

“Sowy pup’. He enjoyed it and showed it by licking her hand when I gave her the okay to pet him.”

“That’s my girl.” I smile over at her.

Becca’s helping her put a band-aid on Dina the dinosaur.

“Are you getting her a puppy for Christmas or her birthday? I’d like time to know how much time I have to get your eulogy together. The humor to sentimental ratio has to be just right.”

“Poppy’s not going to kill me. She’ll love them too.”

“I should’ve known it’d be more than one. Well, don’t worry. I’ll take good care of Harper when you’re gone. I’ll really go the extra mile to prove the right godfather was chosen.”

“That’s all I ask.”

Poppy returns to the room a little while later juggling three plates of appetizers.

“Aw, babe, is one of those for me?” I sit up on the couch.

“These are for the kids. You’re a big boy. You can take care of yourself.”

“Lovebug, Courtney, Robby -- it’s snack time.” She calls to the kids.

The three of them rush to her.

“Sit at the table.”

A bright yellow child-sized table is kept in the kids’ corner of the living room. It’s where their toy box and a few larger toys reside.

The kids follow Poppy like ducklings. Each takes a seat once they’ve reached their destination. Harper, of course, picks the purple chair.

“Auntie Poppy, I want juice.” Courtney requests.

“I’ve poured some for you. It’s in the kitchen. I ran out of hands.” Poppy places a plate of food in front of her. “I’m going to go get your cups as soon as everyone gets their food.”

“I’ll get them.” I work myself up from the couch.

“Thank you.” Poppy smiles at me.

I wink at her. She blushes and goes back to serving their food.

The kitchen smells like fresh-baked, made from scratch perfection. The goddesses responsible are bustling at the kitchen island, preparing the final dishes.

“Afternoon, ladies.”

“Sleep well?” My mom doesn’t look up from what she’s working on.

“Like a baby.” I give her a kiss on the cheek.

“I’ve missed you, Grams. How was your trip to Vegas?”

She hits me with a dish towel when I go in for a hug.

“Ow! What did I do?”

“Why did I have to hear from Leo of all people that you’re a father?”

“I figured Mom would tell you.”

“It should have come from you. Your brother had me walking around with misinformation.” Grams says with a wave of her hand.

“What did he tell you?” I raise an eyebrow.

“A fan you met at a concert showed up on your doorstep with a newborn.”

“Poppy is my twenty-month-old daughter’s mother. I met her in kindergarten. We dated for four years. I approached her at her job in Boston. She told me about Harper the next day. They are now on tour with me. I love both of them very much. Is it safe to give you a hug now?” I do a quick recap.

“Only if you promise to bring Harper in here as soon as she finishes her snack. She was sleeping when I got here.”

“Done.”

“The gals and I had a great time in Las Vegas. Celine Dion’s concert was phenomenal. She has the most beautiful costumes. Connie won big on one of the casinos’ slot machines. We lived it up from the rest of the trip.” She wraps both arms around me. “Best birthday ever.”

“I’m glad you had fun.” I rub her back.

“At least you’re in here giving hugs instead of stuffing your face.”

Lindsey’s taunt makes me seperate myself from Grams.

“Did Poppy send you in to check on me?”

“I came of my own volition. She was nice enough to get food for all of them. I thought I’d lend a hand by actually getting their drinks.”

“I said I would. I am. Scram.”

“No.”

We race to where their filled cups are waiting. Lindsey gets there first and kicks me in the shin before I can overpower her.

“Better luck next time.” She makes a big show of collecting the cups.

“At least let me take Harper’s. I can’t go back empty-handed. Pop will think I got distracted by the food.”

“Fine.” Linds offers up the sparkly purple sippy cup. “But only because I don’t want her to realize she can do better.”

“I’m glad we’re on the same page.” I take it from her.

“Sorry, by the way. Not for the kick, that was justified, but for way I reacted when you came to me for parenting advice. I should’ve been supportive in your time of need.” Lindsey issues a sincere and humble apology as we walk to the living room.

“Who are you? My sister Lindsey doesn’t apologize.”

“She does when she realizes she said terrible things about someone who is too considerate for her own good. I should’ve listened when you tried to remind me of that.”

“Apology accepted.” I throw an arm across her shoulders.

“Don’t blow this a second time. There won’t be a third on my watch.” She glances up at me.

“Because you’ll murder me?”

“And Becca will help me dispose of the body.”

“Taylor will avenge me.”

“He doesn’t stand a chance. We have protective mother strength. Moms can lift cars off babies in times of crisis. Look it up.”

“Where do you and Tay learn these things?” I shake my head.

“The internet.”

Linds and I serve drinks to the snacking children.

“Tank you, Daddy.” Harper blows me a kiss.

“You’re welcome.” I smooth down her hair. “Do you need anything else?”

“Sare.”

“What’s that?”

“Sare.” She feeds me a cheese puff pastry.

“Mama got this food for you. I’m going to go get my own.”

“No go, Daddy. No go!” Harper frantically protests.

“Okay, I’m staying.” I lower myself onto the remaining seat at their table. “But you have to eat most of the food.”

“It yummy.”

“We’re going to tell that to Grams and Grandma once we’re done eating.” I pick up another pastry.

“Flip’s at a farm,” Robby announces.

“Your goldfish?” I raise an eyebrow.

“Uh-huh! He runned real fast.” He boasts with a smile.

I clear my throat to keep from laughing. “How do you know he went to a farm?”

“Mommy tolls me.”

“Tell me everything that happened. I need to hear all about Flip’s big adventure.” I angle my phone towards him and press record.

You can learn a lot while seated at the kids’ table. I discovered that at Becca’s wedding. She put me at the kids’ table to get back at me for laughing when she showed me a picture of her bridesmaids’ dresses.

In my defense, they were baby poop green and had ruffles – cliché, ungodly awful dresses that brides make their closest female friends wear to make themselves look that much better on their big day.

Beck thought I would hate being surrounded by our little cousins and Leo’s kids while Poppy and Taylor were with guests our age. The joke was on her because Poppy sat with me instead of her assigned seat and we had a blast.

The kids entertained us by unknowingly sharing all the family gossip and telling us about the happenings of their young lives.

Today is no different.

According to Robby, Flip the fish gained super-speed after he fed him a lot of fish food. He ran to a farm in the middle of the night and sent him a postcard when he arrived. He’s very happy there and sends him letters regularly.

His journey has inspired Robby to want to become a fish when he grows up. He believes that if he eats lots of food, he will grow big and strong and be able to run as fast as Flip. Harper and Courtney are very excited about the prospect of being related to a goldfish. They ‘love fishies.’

Court shared that Lindsey has a new friend she visits at nighttime. The details are a little fuzzy, but she said Linds ‘dresses fancy’ and ‘has pretty colors on her face’.

Children are the best.

I saddle up to Beck when Poppy takes Harp to the bathroom. “Are you actually putting Flip’s postcards in the mail? If so, what is postage setting you back? And what sorts of things does he write?”

“Poke fun all you want, but you will soon be doing things like that too.”

“I plan to go with toilet hospital. Far less work.”

“I would’ve too if he didn’t love playing in toilets. Robby puts his sailboats in them. He likes the way they whirl around when he flushes. I had to put a special locks on the toilet seats in our house. He still finds a way in.”

I repress the urge to gag. “I’m never touching him again.”

“Like Harper doesn’t do anything gross.”

“Trying to eat off the floor is her worst offense. Harper’s afraid of toilets. She cries when she sees them.”

“Yeah, well, at least I didn’t name him after Reese Witherspoon.” She hits me with the fallback comeback.

“First of all, that’s a jab against Mom. I had zero say in my name. Second, you have no proof of that.”

“Get her wine drunk and ask. I did it. Worth it.” Becca retorts with a smug smile.

“I won’t believe you until you record it. You and Lindsey have been trying to convince me of things my entire life.”

“I will tonight. Mark my words.”

“If it does turn out to be true, which it won’t, I will be okay with it. She’s an accomplished actress and savvy businesswoman. She won an Oscar for playing June in the Johnny Cash biopic. I would be honored. She’s a national treasure.”

“It is true, and when she confirms it, you have to watch both Legally Blonde films and Sweet Home Alabama with me tomorrow. You bring the boxed wine. I’ve got the popcorn.” She gives me an appealing offer.

“As fun as a rom-com marathon sounds, I can’t. I have a date.”

“With Poppy?” She gasps.

“Who else?”

Becca squeals and claps her hands. “Where are you taking her? Do you need me to babysit? Please let me babysit. I’m dying to do Harper’s hair. It’s every stylist’s dream.”

“To my house. She wants to keep things on the DL. Mom’s already called dibs on babysitting. I’m sure she’d let you come over and help. You two can brush her hair and dress her up like a doll until your hearts are content. Harper likes playing dress-up.”

“Ugh, I can’t wait. We—”

“Rhys, door.” Taylor walks into the room eating a meatball.

“Why me? You had to pass it to get here.”

“I think you’ll want to handle him.”

Ah, Leo.

“Don’t punch him in the face this year. He deserves it, but think of the pictures, Rhys. The pictures.” Beck rests her hand on my arm.

“I’ll see what I can do.” I scoot off the couch.

I take a cleansing breath before opening the front door. Leo stands on the porch with three strings attached to helium balloons in one hand, a potted plant tucked beneath his other arm, and Kevin standing at his side.

“Hey, Uncle Rhys.” Kev immediately goes in for a hug.

“What’s up, little man? Good to see you.” I pat his back.

“I got to break a car. It was awesome!”

My eyes go to Leo for the explanation.

“Go inside. Grandma has food in the kitchen.” Leo urges him onward.

Kevin rushes past me.

Leo remains on the porch. I stay in the doorway.

I cross my arms. “Balloons for the kids, a plant for Poppy, and a grandkid for mom -- you brought in the big guns.”

“I’ve got a bag of Twizzlers for Beck too.”

“Too bad, I’m the gatekeeper.”

“I got something for you-- a touch of revenge.”

“I’m listening.”

“The opportunity fell into my lap, actually. I had to pick up Kevin because Liv’s meeting her boyfriend’s family today. Mom said I couldn’t come back here until everyone stopped hating me, so I headed to the only place that is still open right now to buy gifts – the grocery store. Guess who I saw getting out of his off-duty car as we were leaving the store? Poppy’s dad. –”

“You couldn’t remember what Poppy looked like. How am I supposed to believe you were able to ID him on the spot?”

“You don’t forget the face of the man who’s the reason you’re not playing in the NFL. It was him. Positive.”

“It sounds like whatever you had Kevin do to his car was for you.”

“All you -- well, you and Poppy. Sailor Taylor left me a raging voicemail laying out specifics of your whole situation. It sucks way more than me getting busted with alcohol at a party.”

Leo’s humbled demeanor is unnerving. Cocky is his one setting.

I recalerbrate my approach. “What’d, uh, did Kev do to his car?”

“I gave him a cart -- a metal one -- pointed it in the right direction and let nature take its course. The driver’s side of the car is covered in scrapes and the side-view mirror was taken clean off. I recorded the entire thing for your viewing pleasure. I’ve already sent it to your phone.”

“Did you get his reaction?”

“Nah, I thought it was best to bail before he showed up. Having Kev do the deed created deniability. I didn’t want to push my luck too far.”

I step aside to grant him access to the house and take the balloons and plant from him so that he can remove his coat.

“While we’re having this heart to heart, I think now would be the best time to admit that Harper was conceived in your Mustang.” It takes everything in me not to laugh.

“N-no. No. There’s no way. I’ve never let you borrow it. I-I’ve always kept it locked. You’re joking.” He nervously rambles.

“Dad may not have taught me to ride a bike, but he did teach me how to get into a car and use it if the keys are missplaced’.”

“It’s a two-seater.” Leo grasps at another straw.

“Creativity was required. There were a few snags, but we made it work. Poppy had a strict curfew and I needed to get your car back to your place before you noticed. We didn’t have time to clean up after ourselves, but it worked out in the end. You detail the interior of the car yourself and your work is thorough.”

“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!” He roars.

“Nope.” I pop the “p.” “And feels really good to finally get that off my chest.”

“You are so lucky Mom wants pictures.” Leo’s vibrating with rage.

“You are too.” I stroll off with a deep sense of satisfaction.

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